This is an overdue article that has lived in my mind for the past fifteen years. The thought has kept reemerging before my eyes on several occasions, but manifested itself more clearly during the last year, especially with the lockdown of COVID-19 and the consequence of many people being out in the job market. The pandemic forced many people to compete for specific roles, a situation that typically drives hiring managers to try to shortlist a few candidates to interview. One of the methods to select the best candidates is to request recommendation letters.
The job market conditions due to the latest pandemic drew parallels with the last recession that cannot be ignored. During the great recession of 2008, the job market looked bleak and there were simply hundreds of applicants competing for every posting. Many job seekers were applying for hundreds, if not thousands, of openings facilitated by the ease of the internet application process. This created chaos to all parties involved and there were only a few methods available for hiring managers to sort out the serious applicants. Employers requested several documents, including reference letters, and sometimes those requests came early in the process.
At the time I graduated with a doctorate degree, I thought the world was awaiting my skills and I would have no issue finding many opportunities from which to choose. Unfortunately, it was also at the time of the great recession, and all opportunities were either committed or the advertisements were flat out not real. For most of the applications I submitted, there were requests for references. Reaching out to my references during that time was a struggle since I applied, like many others during that time, for numerous jobs.
I had to ask myself these questions: Should I request references from my mentors early in the application, though I was not sure if I would be shortlisted, or wait until later in the process to make sure their efforts were worthwhile. But if I did that, would I lose the opportunity as hundreds of applicants were flooding the system? As survival mode kicked in, I had to make so many calculations to weigh my best options, specifically around how to best use my available resources. The main questions were: 1) When do I request a supporting letter from my mentors? and 2) How many letters should I request? I would not want to risk exhausting my references and losing their support when I really needed their letters. So many times, my application reached an advanced step in the process, yet conditional on the availability of recommendation letters. I reached out to my references every single time, informing them that they might receive a request and asking if they would kindly provide a letter.
Five names at that time were high on my reference list and I was alternating among them by choosing three names for every application. This was my wise strategy, so I would not risk overburdening my references. Even with this strategy and, given the panic state of the economy at the time, my number of requests was not limited—to state it mildly. I remember feeling really bad every time I had to reach out to my mentors, letting them know, so they could be on the lookout for a reference request from employers. To my delight, every single time I made those requests, my previous supervisors responded with grace. I was in awe of their kindness and support. Not only were they willing to provide letters of recommendation, but also—and on many occasions—they gave great reviews of my skills and capabilities when contacted by phone. I remember receiving calls from companies and establishments raving about how great my references were, that my previous supervisors had given very positive insights on how skilled I am and how I would help them progress in their mission. At times like these, feeling the support of their previous supervisors, anyone would feel uplifted and motivated to keep going in their pursuit.
For a long time, I have wanted to share this experience with anyone searching for mentors or coaches willing to take their hand during the steps along their career paths. I am indebted to my previous supervisors and mentors, especially those who supported me by providing reference letters, calling on my behalf, or even giving me honest advice. Although I am tempted to mention them here, I cannot do so since I have not gotten their permission to share their names. However, I will send them this article with a letter saying “Thank you” for all the support and generosity they showed me fifteen years ago.
In doing so, I am also letting them know that I learned from them to be good to my employees, team members, mentees and students. Over the past decade, I have taken every opportunity to provide good references to professionals who worked with me. Not only that, but I have also given technical and leadership advice to my mentees whenever they asked. This is a rewarding experience that is worth every minute, and I recommend it to everyone who reached a good point in their careers. Helping others is a commitment we take on when we sign up for a leadership role. Leaders do not only provide vision, set goals and evaluate performance but also provide continuous support to their team, even after they move on to their next phase. The ultimate goal is to foster a life-long professional relationship with your mentees that will last forever.